Monday, August 22, 2011

Bottoms Up: Local beer experts discuss peers' pints



WASHINGTON - For years, D.C. has been a beer mecca. A number of bars have filled pint glasses full of suds from all points on the globe except one area: their own backyard.

Move to the past 12 months where a number of homegrown breweries are tapping kegs of fresh brew made inside the Beltway. Three breweries have started operations in the D.C. city limits, while others have operations in the suburbs.

With the local movement growing at a whirlwind pace, it can be hard to keep up with all the cool beers coming onto the local scene.

Two local brewmasters, Dave Coleman of 3 Stars Brewing and Brandon Skall of DC Brau took some time out of their busy DC Beer Week schedules to sample and discuss new local beers with Greg Engert, the beer director at ChurchKey.

Port City Optimal Wit

This witbier was the first offering in the wave of local breweries, coming from an Alexandria brewery that first opened its tap lines in January.

Lighter than most craft beers (5 percent ABV), Coleman, Engert and Skall commented on the spice and a subtle citrus flavor that came through upon the first tasting. Engert says the flavors come from the coriander and orange peel that's used in the brewing process.

The beer is similar to Portland, Maine's Allagash White, which Engert says "sells like crazy around here."

"For a local brewer to come out with a witbier makes a lot of sense," he says, adding that the beer can be paired with "tons of food."

"This is a beer you can drink year round," Skall says, but lighter beers brewed with citrus notes don't necessarily have to be enjoyed during the summer.

"I'm not so much a die hard believer that's certain styles of beer have to be drank at certain times of the year," Skall says.

The group says the seasonality behind certain brews was something born out of necessity centuries ago that now primarily serves as an effective marketing tool.

"It's not like we live in a primitive era," he says. "We have air conditioning. You can drink porters if you want."

Baying Hound Lord Wimsey Mild Pale Ale

Despite the niche market people like Coleman and Skall are carving out in the District, one local brewery is operating on an even smaller scale.

Baying Hound Aleworks, based in Rockville, is considered a "nanobrewery," which falls between craft brewers and people brewing their own beer in their kitchens.

"It's obviously more professional brewing than home brewing, but just on a very, very, very small scale," Engert says. "It stems from hobby brewing, but it gets to a point where his beers are damn good and people want to drink them."

Paul Rinehart, the head brewer at Baying Hound, is only producing 12 and 22 oz. bottles of his beers for sale.

Engert says Rinehart's "mild" pale ale gives off a fruity nose and has a subtle complexity due to the way the fermented yeast and English hops were used in the brewing process.

The yeast is visible as a glass is poured, making the beer cloudy. Skall says that's part of Rinehart's process.

"This beer is all conditioned in the bottle," Skall says. "Where we might pump [carbon dioxide] into a beer to get it carbonated before we get it into a keg or can, these will actually be done with a little bit of sugar added into the bottle that reactivates that yeast and allows it to carbonate again inside the bottle."

Coleman compared the beer to a really fresh pub ale you would find in casks in England. Engert agreed, saying that's the reason this beer is so unique to the area.

"By the time casks get here, they are just not going to taste the same as they would over there," he says. "This is a fun way to taste beer you would have to go to England for."

The Citizen

Is it possible to find a fresher pint of beer than one that came from its third batch ever? That's the batch of DC Brau's Belgian Pale Ale this group drank, which can be found on tap at numerous bars in town.

Skall says the beer is actually more of a Belgian Strong Blonde that features yeast also found in popular Belgian import Chimay, which gives the beer a peppery essence.

Engert says there is a lot happening in this beer to give it its depth of flavor.

"What I like here is there is residual malt [which allows for flavor over aeromatics], there is a spicy hop presence that interacts with the other flavors, but also bolsters that peppery note you get in the nose."

Skall says that comes from his brewing process, in which they don't filter or fine any of their beers.

"With filtering, you pull out some of those flavor compounds and proteins," he says.

"You can tell that this has been conditioned properly," Engert says. "That's why the flavors are so well developed. You get something different when you go to the glass every time."

"I think the beer is fantastic," Coleman says. "This is the type of beer you can drink all day. You can see that Brandon and [Jeff Hancock, Skall's partner] really put their minds to it when they were developing the recipe."

Engert believes Skall's recipe may be the perfect ingredient to a number of food dishes across town.

"This kind of beer can accentuate some of the flavors we might find in a dish," Engert says. "It's like the final seasoning a chef can hit [a dish] with."

3 Stars/Oilver Ales B.W.Rye

While 3 Stars hasn't started selling any of their own beers yet, they have rolled out a collaboration with long-time Baltimore brewmaster Stephen Jones of the Pratt Street Ale House.

The beer is a rye-based India Pale Ale that rings in at 7 percent ABV. The beer is a combination of English and American hops with a 10 percent rye build used in the malting process.

"It's got a strong, spicy bite from the rye," Coleman says. "The hops really come through in the nose, it's got a bitter finish on it."

Engert says the biscuit notes the beer has comes from ringwood yeast, a special type of English yeast Jones often uses in Oliver Ales. He likes the way that yeast interacts with the rye used in the malt.

"Rye is great in giving you that dry, grainy flavor, a little bit of that spicy note that should - and often does - work elegantly with Centennial hops," Engert says.

"There's a great balance between the sensation that the English malt brings out, and then the American hops -- I think they counteract each other and work together to produce some complex flavors," he says.

"Ringwood is known for having this caramel-y quality, almost butterscotch-toffee quality which is amazing with that biscuity, toasty quality we get from the malts themselves," he says.

The group looks to Jones as a local "caskmaster" for his ability to bring English-style flavors to local beers.

"And he listens to Motorhead while he brews, so he rules," Skall says.

While the range of beers coming from local breweries is wide, all three men stress that is a good thing, because it allows people to try something new and fresh from their own backyard.

"The thing that's great about [these beers] is that they are going to be available for everyone," Engert says. "I think of Optimal Wit or The Citizen of being styles that lots of beer drinkers like. So they're awesomely accessible for those types, but then for the hardened beer nerd, I think there is something subtly interesting on that level."

"Whether they are a seasoned beer veteran or new to the scene, everyone can enjoy it," Coleman says.

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